Lately, the music industry’s been marketing the “playa” persona to the 21st century hip-hop junkie. The persona has always been around, but I trace his recent rise to prominence to the murders of 2Pac and Biggie. I say “his” because recent applicants to the female rap pantheon are usually more serious (i.e. “hard”) and, by definition, don’t quite fit the “playa” (i.e. “girls just wanna have fun”) category. Foxy Brown and Lil’ Kim might have a good time with you, but there’s a chance you’ll end up with a bullet in your dome piece. Meanwhile, in the years following 2Pac and Biggie, male rappers—and I’m mainly talking about those in the so-called mainstream—decided they’d rather chill out and have a good time or at least become kinder, gentler thugs.
Plus, it’s hard to be menacing in a post-September 11th climate. Dissing your enemy over a phat beat just doesn’t resonate the same way it did before we started receiving terror alerts and watching unnatural disasters in Indonesia and New Orleans. Gone from the “mainstream” are the gangsta fairytales from the likes of NWA – now, Dr. Dre actually records songs about being a family guy and Ice Cube makes family movies. Life is serious business these days—we’d like to escape. Gone are the songs of social protest and political commentary—Flavor Flav’s strange and surreal fascination with VH1 has all but turned Public Enemy, rather than 9-1-1, into a joke. In fact, while I was revising this article, I heard “Fight the Power” in an ad for a new PS2 game, and a DMX song in an Avis commercial.
I’ve been in denial but now it’s time to face facts. Hip-hop has officially stopped going against the grain.
Then there’s Akir, an artist who carefully sidestepped the “playa” image, who injected 16 shots of his intelligent wordplay on his 2004 release, Street Edition Volume 1 & 2, and who, without a major record label, sold and promoted Street Edition to a wide audience. This is a serious cat. You can thank your lucky stars for “the underground”, since that’s where Akir hails from. Actually, he was born in New York and honed his skills in Massachusetts, but if you turned on the radio in 2005, you probably wouldn’t have heard him much. That’s because, barring payola, he doesn’t fit the current mold. He’s not “pimping all over the world”, talking about gold diggers, or showing off the jewelry in his grill. Once you give him a listen, you can hear how sincerely he strives to be the real thing, a true wordsmith, a poet even. He’s not all the way there yet, but he’s like a hungry boxer, a hip-hop Million Dollar Baby (except male and hopefully with a happier ending), and he’s steadily gaining attention from managers and promoters.
Let’s hope the buzz continues and increases with the release of Akir’s album Legacy, complete with fresh lyrics, precise production by Southpaw and Immortal Technique, and a couple of well-chosen guest spots from Abiodun of the Last Poets (especially on “Kunta Kinte”). The production drives the album in several spots, particularly on songs like “Rite of Passage”, “Apocalypse”, and “Change of Seasons”.
At times, the production value almost overshadows the rapper, which is hard to believe, considering how thoroughly Akir can rip a track. To put it plain, Akir is a damn good rapper. His voice has a certain silk to it, a calm and laidback quality that camouflages his intensity. He has points to make, about life (“Rite of Passage”), about being responsible to one’s community (“Treason”, “Kunta Kinte”), about politics (“Politricks”, “Apocalypse”), and about love (“No Longer My Home”). His delivery sounds effortless, much like Nas when he debuted with Illmatic. And speaking of which, Akir will have to map out an exit strategy for overcoming his similarities to Nas; otherwise, he’ll find himself branded a Queensbridge clone.
The gems on Legacy are the tracks where Akir’s lyricism and Immortal Technique’s production work together. Of the 19 songs on my promo copy, most of them work (the actual release appears to have 20 songs). Unfortunately, the standouts don’t include the title track. If I could break into the studio and change the album any way I wanted, I’d cut five songs from the set: “Resurrect”, “Tropical Fantasy”, “Legacy”, “Pedigree”, and “So Much”. Of those songs, the first three include awkward choruses with guest singers; the last two lack focus and take the album on a tangent.
After losing the dead weight, we’d need a new title, so I’d rename the album after the beat-switching “Rite of Passage”, the album’s first full song.
Next, I’d have a serious heart-to-heart with Akir about changing his name. Right now, his name is an acronym that stands for “Always Keep It Real”. No matter how you dress it up, hip-hop needs to surgically remove all references to the “keeping it real” slogan from its vocabulary. Everybody and their grandmother’s housecat “keeps it real” these days. I tried researching the name “Akir” for language derivations and possible meanings, but all I came up with was its Scottish meaning: “anchor”. While that might be good enough for, say, Sean Connery, it just won’t do for an American rap star. The only option left for Akir’s publicist is to say the acronym stands for something else. I doubt Akir would go for it, so we’d have to convince him not to explain the name too much. At least not in public. And definitely not in print.
Finally, I’d release “No Longer My Home” as Akir’s first single and wait for the money to come in so I could take my cut for my consultation and management fees.
Whatever the editing and marketing strategies, you can hear Akir’s talent on songs like “Politricks”, “Ride 2 It”, and “Homeward Bound”. What’s missing is a well-crafted identity, a brand name that becomes synonymous with Akir’s voice and brings his persona and philosophy to mind. NWA created word pictures of Compton, The Geto Boys described every detail of their 5th Ward psychosis, and LL Cool J demonstrated how well he could be a lover and a rhyme fighter. Although Akir succeeds in showing us what he can do with his pipes, he doesn’t define himself. You get a sense of what he’s thinking about, but not a sense of Akir the man. Maybe that’s what videos are for. But that’s the double-edged sword of the entertainment business: being identifiable enough to win fans and sell the product while not being pigeonholed and typecast. Hopefully, Akir won’t follow in Nas’ footsteps and allow his image to change so rapidly the whole thing becomes convoluted and confusing.
On Legacy, Akir will make you nod your head and admire how smoothly this guy can put down his vocals. He might remind you of Nas, but remember how excited the rap world was when Illmatic came out? Nas was labeled as the second coming of Rakim; he’d be the one to absolve hip-hop of all its sins. Nas didn’t need that kind of pressure and neither does Akir. Besides, Akir already has something hip-hop needs—the ability to make you listen, think, and listen again. Akir hasn’t hit his peak yet, but this album is certainly a step in the right direction.